Creativity in the Piano Lesson

Have you ever heard of the paper clip test? It measures creativity* by asking a simple question:

How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? 

Most people can come up with a list of 10-15 things. How many things do you think a kindergartener could list? Around two hundred. 

There is an infinite amount of potential for teaching and learning with this level of creativity. The question is, how can we as teachers create opportunities for divergent thinking and foster creativity in our students? 

Here are a few ideas:

5 Ways to Foster Creativity in Your Piano Students

1. Find ways to incorporate creative movement. 

Introduce a new rhythm pattern (preparation for a new song, perhaps) and ask the student to create a corresponding movement. I had a student last week suggest elbows and fist pumps. I kid you not.

2. Use different voices to speak rhythm patterns. 

Sometimes, rhythm syllables and neutral syllables get old. Some other creative ideas include: opera star, baby, howling dog, barking dog, cow, etc.

3. Improvise. 

Build in time for an in-lesson improvisation, based on something familiar to the student.

For instance, I had a student last week who had just gotten back from Zoo Camp. Naturally, I asked him to improvise a song about the animals at the zoo. He chose to include: lions, a tiger, a gazelle, a crocodile, a blue jay, and a mouse. (I know because he added in narration along the way.)

4. Respond to the moment. 

This is a creative challenge for teachers - what do you with a wiggly five-year-old at the end of their lesson when you're just trying to get through "In a Canoe" and they just want to experiment? 

You propose a "murky water" improv section (setting the scene for the canoe) + patterns from the song. And you go with it.

5. Give a weekly creativity challenge. 

I add this to the bottom of the student's assignment sheet. I usually provide a few simple parameters (i.e. use only black keys or only short sounds) and/or a theme or point of inspiration. 

Here’s an example for a kindergarten student:

“Create a song about cars and trucks.  What do they sound like?  Are they driving or stuck in traffic?  Be sure to give your improvisation or composition a name!”

Related post: 40 Ideas to Inspire Creativity in Your Piano Students

Have other ideas for adding creativity into the piano lesson?  Leave a comment - I'd love to hear from you!

*Note: If you haven't seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on this topic, watch it here (short animated clip) or here (full video).


Five-year-old Alison had just finished playing one of her previous lesson book songs chosen from her “piano box” – an elaborately-decorated tissue box holding the names of all of her “checked-off” songs. Her mom says it’s one of her favorite parts of practicing at home and she begged to incorporate it into piano lessons, too. I think she feels a great sense of accomplishment when she can turn back a few pages and play a familiar song successfully and from the teacher’s perspective, it’s a great repertoire-building technique.

We turned the page for her new assignment, “Rodeo.” As exciting as the piece looked on paper, it just wasn’t engaging enough to hold her interest today.

I asked, “Did you remember your cowgirl hat? You need to wear it in order to play this song.” “Yep!” she replied enthusiastically. “I have it right here,” she said as she pulled the imaginary hat from behind her back. “Guess what color it is?” said the girl dressed in all pink. “Pink,” I said. “Yeah,” she said, as if no other color existed. Hat in place, she began to copy my phrases as we sang together.

I was pleasantly surprised that the imaginative distraction worked – she was actually learning the new piece without even realizing it! I thought too soon. Halfway through, she stopped suddenly and turned to her mom. “I need a skittle! I can’t play anymore until I have one!” she said dramatically. “The skittles are in the car – you can have them after your lesson. Only a few more minutes – I think you’ll survive,” her mom replied.

Alison was insistent, jumping off the bench to plead a little more. “Alison, didn’t you put your skittles in your cowgirl hat?” I asked, trying the imagination tool once more. “Oh yeah!” she said. “I forgot I put them in there!” She pulled the imaginary pink hat off her head and pulled out an imaginary handful of skittles. “What color do you like, Miss Ashley?” “I like the green ones,” I said as she pulled a few imaginary green skittles out of her imaginary handful and handed them to me.

After the brief imaginary skittle-break, we resumed playing “Rodeo,” imaginary pink cowgirl hat in place.